Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Evangelical Fall v. The Biblical Fall

One surprising aspect of “biblical” Christianity is just how much of it doesn't come from the Bible, and just how much can be refuted without looking at anything but the Bible. A perfect example of this is the Fall.

The Snake/Satan

What happens is that Satan appears to Eve as a serpent/enters a serpent and deceives her. Right? Actually, that's the evangelical version of the story, which is quite different than the biblical version.

The talking snake is to be contrasted with the talking donkey in Numbers 22:28. With Balaam's donkey, the text recognizes that donkey's don't normally talk, and thus it says that “the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey.” This story actually makes sense within the context of Bible. Now, I'm not saying that I just believe stories about a talking donkey just because a superstition scribe who believed in the power of curses wrote it down millenia ago. But at least it's internally consistent with the world of the Bible.

With the talking snake, there is nothing suggesting that Satan was behind this particular reptile's speaking gifts. It's a literal snake that was able to literally speak just because – well, because snakes can talk, I guess. Genesis 3 begins “now the serpent was more crafty than ...” Not, “now Satan was crafty.” The snake. The craftiness comes from the snake.

When the snake talks to Eve, the conversation proceeds without any mention of anything supernatural that allows the snake to talk, and without any mention of Eve thinking anything is unusual about this particular reptile's level of linguistic development. Personally, I think a good case can be made that even the ancient Israelites didn't take this literally, although I appreciate no longer having to care if YECs are wrong due to believing an ancient superstition or due to believing an ancient work of fiction.

The Curse on the Snake

When God hears about what happened, he's not mad at Satan for using an animal to enact his evil plan. God is mad at the snake. And so he curses the snake. The first part of the curse is directly targeted at snakes and they now have have to eat dust(!) and crawl on their bellies. The second part of the curse is about the snake's seed and Eve's seed, but evangelicals consider it to be a prophecy about Jesus' death: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Several things need to be stretched for this to be talking about Satan v. Jesus. First off, the snake needs to have something to do with Satan, when in fact, there is no biblical connection between the two. (Or a literal snake needs to talk to Judas...) But suppose for the sake of argument that in the biblical version, Satan had entered into the snake when it tempted Eve. Still, the curse is on the snake's seed. Satan still isn't the snake's seed. For the curse to be a prophecy about Satan v. Jesus, it should be enmity between “you and her seed,” not between “your seed and her seed.” The snake's seed is future generations of snakes, and Jesus hasn't bruised their head, and they haven't bruised Jesus' heal.

Next, there is no reason to think “her seed” refers to one person. Unless you're Paul and twisting the words to mean what you want them to mean, “her seed” is referring to future generations of humanity. The exact same arguments that I used in reference to Abraham's seed apply here.

(“He” in “He shall bruise your head” is not justified by the Hebrew words, unless one is operating under the assumption that the prophecy is true and therefore using the NT to guide the interpretation/translation of the OT. But for consistency, I'm sticking to the NASB, even though the KJV uses one fewer male pronoun.)

Finally, suppose that Jesus' heal was literally bruised as a significant part of his crucifixion in one or several of the Gospel accounts. We can be certain that Christians would consider it to be evidence that prophecy is accurate down to the exact detail. We know this because when Isaiah talks about Jesus' “stripes” or being “pierced”, this is seen as a prophecy about the particular details of the crucifixion process and evidence for the divine nature of biblical prophecy. If those literal details are seen as evidence that biblical prophecy has an uncanny accuracy, I think that the lack of a literal fulfillment of this detail should be seen as evidence that biblical prophecy is sometimes wrong.

Alternatives to Literalism

Of course, a good case can be made that none of these are literal prophecies and therefore none of these are evidence for or against the accuracy of biblical prophecy. But if you take this position, think carefully about whether or not Jesus fulfilled a single prophecy and just what prophecy is good for.

Similarly, as much as it complicates the case against Christianity, I actually still agree with position that much of Genesis was not meant to be understand as a literal account. IMO, Christianity's most intellectually robust form includes the positions that the beginning of Genesis is myth and the Gospels are historical. But it's hard to learn to respect the cryptic wisdom and “spiritual truths” of a fable after once having thought of it as “true” in the sense of “actually happening.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

Two Creation Stories

Just as there are two flood stories, there are two different creation stories. While Bible contradictions will be part of the argument, keep in mind that I'm not countering inerrancy directly – I'm taking another step in making a positive case for the Documentary Hypothesis that the Torah consists of several conflicting documents woven together. My arguments are not “... therefore the Bible contradicts itself” but “... therefore there are two different creation accounts.” Establishing the existence of a reconciliation between the two versions would not alone answer my arguments. Differences can be less than a contradiction but still evidence that there are two different creation accounts contained in Genesis 1-2 and that neither account shows any signs of having been written to go with the other account.

Understanding the distinction between contra-inerrancy arguments, and arguments that lead to a positive conclusion (in the context of the Gospels) was quite possibly the final “aha” moment for me on the way out of Christianity. With the second approach, to goal is not to find contradictions but to find clues that help us figure out the history of the writing of the Bible. Once dozens of these clues are harnessed together by all supporting the same point, they cannot be belittled one piece at a time as trivial details or something for which an explanation will present itself at a later time.

I would like to begin my argument by pointing out that the prima facie case is mine. Read Genesis 1:1-2:3 by itself and you have a complete story of the creation of the world and everything in it. Read Genesis 2:4-2:25 and you have a complete story of the creation of the world and everything in it. Both stories are begun with verses that would make perfect sense as the first verse in a book.

If these really are different stories, what we should expect to find is differences in the details that must be explained away to maintain that it's really all the same story. If this really is the same story, we should expect the halves of the story to refer to each other in ways that just don't make sense when viewing the stories as individuals – especially because the second half is claimed to cover a time interval contained within the first half. These are the criteria by which I will be making the case for two different stories.

(Don't think that I think I'm some scholar who knows the official criteria by which this is normally judged. I'm merely spelling out precisely what I consider to be common sense so that if anyone disagrees with my overall approach, it's clear what they are arguing against.)

Man Before Plants?

Plants are created on the third day, which is certainly before the creation of people on the sixth day.

However, Genesis 2:5 lets us know that plants are not created yet. “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.” Before plants are created in 2:8-9, Adam is created in 2:7. The prima facie case is mine again: Adam is created before plants in the second creation account.

Looking closer at the logic of the story makes the point even more clear. In 2:5, we are given two reasons for a lack of plants: no water, and no man. 2:6 solves the first problem as a mist comes. 2:7 solves the second problem as man is created. Both problem are now solved. So God is now ready to plant a garden and make plants grow, which he does in 2:8-9. It's not just the order in which event are recorded that suggest Adam was created before plants, but the logical flow of the account as well.

Creationists' rebuttal is that Genesis 2:5 refers only to specific kinds of plants, namely cultivated plants. Thus, most of the plants were created on the third day, while the cultivated plants of Eden were created after Adam on the sixth day. I'm no Hebrew scholar, but just looking up all the different words used for shrub and plant in Strong's Concordance offers absolutely no support for this position. I see no reason to think Genesis 1:11-12 excludes some kinds of plants and I see no reason to think Genesis 2:5 includes only the kinds of plants not created on the third day. Without either of these arguments, the YEC position fails without even looking outside the Bible.

The only reason I see for even speculating about either is simply that it is needed to make Genesis 1-2 flow as a single story. Another way of saying this is that the creationist position is to begin with a certain conclusion and then look for an interpretation of the words to make it work. But that's not how you're supposed to read things when the goal is a truth search and not merely the affirmation of preconceived ideas. The intellectually honest approach is to let Genesis tell you what Genesis is saying. The way young-earth creationists cannot do this is precisely the kind of bending over backward that should be expected if there really are two creation stories.

Also, this doesn't make sense of the logic of 2:5-9. The reason for no plants of some kind is a lack of rain and a lack of man. Now, what kind of plants either need rain or need man? Pretty much all of them, at least according to non-technical ideas of what a plant is. If there's a distinction between wild and cultivated plants, then I would guess that no rain is why there are no wild plants and no man is why there are no cultivated plants in 2:5.

Animals Before Eve?

On the sixth day, God first creates the animals, and then he creates people. However, in the second creation account, the order is Adam, animals, Eve. Creationists generally agree with the first part, so I won't belabor that point.

The order in which the events are recorded is the creation of Adam (2:7), animals (2:19), and finally Eve (2:22), so the prima facie case is mine again. But the case is much stronger than the mere order in which the facts are recorded – this is the order that is implied by the logic of 2:18-2:22. In 2:18a, God observes a problem: man is alone. In 2:18b, God suggests a solution: Adam needs a helper. The next thing that happens is God creates the animals in 2:19 as an attempt to find Adam a helper. My claim that the creation of the animals was an attempt to find a helper for Adam is all but explicitly stated in 2:20: “but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.” In verse 2:21, God tries a more successful solution: taking one of Adam's ribs and making a woman.

To argue that Genesis 1-2 is a single literal account means that three things that must be explained away. First, the order in which the events are recorded must be overlooked. Second, the awkward insertion of the story of the creation of the animals (2:19-20) into the story of the creation of Adam's helper (2:18 & 2:21-22) must be ignored. And finally, Genesis' own explanation for why the creation of animals fits into the creation of Adam's helper must be ignored. I don't see how this position can be held unless one is taking the approach that Genesis must be true and literal therefore there must be some way of resolving the contradiction.

This is precisely what should be expected if these are two different creation accounts that were not written to go together. The six days of creation have their own logical structure, and the second creation account has a logical account of needs and solutions. Each makes sense alone, but to view them as going together prevents the reader from seeing what the second author is saying.

Two Creation Stories/Two Flood Stories/Two Authors

The case for two authors gets even better when compared with the two flood stories. In one of the flood stories, God was known as Elohim, while in the other, he was known as Yahweh. In all 38 instances, the God of 1:1-2:3 is Elohim. In all 11 instances, the God of 2:4-2:25 is Yahweh.

Also, in the flood stories, it was the Elohim author that spoke of the opening of the windows of heaven and fountains of the deep, while the Yahweh author says the flood comes because it starts raining. One is giving more of God's perspective while the other is giving more of man's perspective. We see the same thing with the creation accounts. The Elohim author doesn't even mention people until the end, and then man fades into the background again as Elohim rests. The Yahweh author describes the creation of plants and animals in the contexts of plants needing man and man needing a helper.

Furthermore, on the second day of creation, Elohim creates an expanse and calls it heaven. Water is created that is above this expanse. It was Elohim who opens the windows of heaven to let this water out to flood the earth. This suggests that not only are there two authors of the creation and flood stories, but they are in fact the same two authors.

If Genesis 1-2 is a single narrative, it is quite curious that we find internal references and similarities between certain halves of the creation and flood accounts, but we don't find internal references between the two halves of the creation account, in spite of the fact that the time interval of the second half is completely inside the time interval of the first half.

I encourage you to read creationists' rebuttal to these arguments, because it so clearly shows that the arguments I am presenting have been noted and answered poorly. Both sides have reasonable positions if you are just reading an overview of the positions. Where creationists lose is when you compare each position to the specifics of the details in how Genesis 1-2 is written.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Puff of Logic

Douglas Adams inserted a hilarious bit of theological satire into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that I would have added to my last post if I had remembered it in time. Adams has just finished introducing a comically convenient plot device: the Babel Fish. This is a creature that feeds on sound waves and excretes brain waves – all you must do is place a Babel Fish in your ear, and then all languages are immediately translated into your native language.

Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The argument goes something like this:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't though of that" and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

While at face value this is “the Design Argument Against the Existence of God,” don't miss the real point. It's not actually a rebuttal to the Design Argument or a positive argument for atheism. It's a satire of the “it's so we can have faith” defense for a lack of evidence for God or a particular religion.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Divine Hiddenness: The Other Fine-Tuning Argument

“... God our Savior ... desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – I Timothy 2:3-4

Why is God hidden? While theists disagree with both me and each other on the level of clarity in the evidence, surely they would agree that if God did something like performing miracles on national TV, he would be obvious in a way that his is not right now. Why must apologetics consist of ancient history, philosophical arguments, and subjective feelings? But before I rebut apologists' explanations for why we even need apologists, I wish to further explain a few of the many ways that God hides himself.

The Bible could have had very specific prophecies about Jesus that he very specifically fulfilled. Pesher may be an acceptable excuse for why the prophetic evidence for Jesus cited in the Bible is nonexistent, but it is no excuse for God choosing to reveal Jesus in a culture that would lead to “fulfillments” like this. Micah could have said “One day, the Messiah will be born of a virgin in the town of Bethlehem, and yet still manage to come out of both Egypt and Nazareth.” Jonah could have said “just like me, the Messiah will be in the belly of the earth. Unlike me, it will be for one and a half days and two nights.” Isaiah could have told us plainly that the suffering servant of chapter 53 was the Messiah. He could have told us plainly that the Messiah would be literally “pierced” for our transgressions, but not literally “crushed” for our iniquities. He could have told us that “not opening his mouth” would be limited to the trial before Herod and the walk to the cross; this would not exclude a quite lengthy prayer the night before, this would not exclude dialogue with Pilate, and this would not exclude dialogue and a yell while on the cross. He could have told us that “like a lamb that is led to slaughter” is fairly close to the literal truth, while “like a sheep that is silent before its shearers” is not even close to the literal truth. But instead, God fined-tuned the prophecies in the Bible to make it look precisely like God played no role in inspiring the Bible.

The Bible could have had scientific information that was useful immediately. Starting whenever God decided to start inspiring books, we could have known:

“Diseases are caused by tiny things that you can't see. They live inside of you and pretty much everywhere else too, but they stop growing where it's really cold and they die where it's really hot. Cook meat well to kill them – when you don't, these tiny things go inside you and make you sick. With some of them, you can protect yourself by teaching your body how to fight them in advance. It's kind of complicated, but how it works is you need to grow a lot of these tiny things. Then heat up those tiny things to kill them. The shells of their bodies will be left behind – you won't be able to see them, but they're there. Inject these shells into your body and your body will automatically learn how to kill them. Now, if you come in contact with those tiny things in the future, your body will be prepared ahead of time. You might have to experiment a bit to get this to work, but knowing the general idea of what's going on should make it quite a bit easier than it would be if I uncaringly left you to figure all of it out yourself.”

The efficiency with which I have communicated should be contrasted with the wisdom of not eating pork or shellfish. I'd bet with more work and more knowledge of medicine, I could write something shorter, clearer, and more helpful, and that an omniscient deity could do better still. With this is mind, I have difficulty understanding why Jesus wasted his time with trifles like healing blind men one at a time or feeding people thousands at a time. He could have saved so many more people so much more easily, and in a way that authenticated his message for both his audience and for scientists who one day discovered just why his suggestions worked so well. It didn't have to be the case that science and the Bible were set on a collision course. Just think of how much stuff God could have packed into the Bible or Jesus could have shared. Thousands of paragraphs like the one above could have all been packed into a book of the Bible's size. But the ancient Jews were not given any of this information. He fine-tuned the scientific data in the Bible so we couldn't see that he had anything at all to do with it.

While I understand the position that God just worked through the historical process in writing the Bible, I'm not willing to just take it for granted that this is the only option he had. Making the Bible be a book that God literally dictated was one of God's options. There are all sorts of ways in which God could have inspired the Bible. And yet he chose an inspiration technique that is indistinguishable from doing nothing at all.

Not only was modern scientific information left out, but even after receiving the law, the Israelites didn't even have enough contemporary scientific knowledge to beat their rivals. Judges 1:19 “The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.” Science, it seems, has been Yahweh's Kryptonite for a long time.

This also leads to God's hiddenness in war. God could favor the strongest army to end the war quickly and minimize deaths, he could favor the underdog, or he could favor whoever is more moral. But instead, God favors big armies, iron chariots, and technologically advanced weapons. Atheism forces people to this conclusion ahead of time. Theism says that pretty much anything could be the result, but for some reason, God chose the one result that would be consistent with atheism. He fine-tunes his control of battles to make it look like he doesn't do anything.

Similarly with birth defects. If God exists, it could go in many ways. Maybe God gives all the defects to the children of people who aren't Christians. Maybe they are simply more likely to go to non-Christians. Or maybe it's the other way around, and God gives more birth defects to Christians than everyone else. In fact, any outcome is perfectly consistent with the possibility that God set it up that way. But with atheism, one is forced to make a very specific prediction. Faith will not matter, except to the extent that faith is correlated with circumstantial differences, as with missionaries who bring medicine. This very specific prediction is what we actually see in the real world. While any outcome could in principle be explicable in the context of theism, this is a surprising outcome. God fine-tunes the distribution of birth defects to make it look like he doesn't do anything at all.

Christianity has a number of answers to this. The weaknesses of these answers help illustrate the unanswerability of the problem of an invisible God when he's omnipresent, omnipotent, and wants to be known.
God isn't hidden.”

In my opinion, this is the only chance. But a desire to give this answer is where the most easily disproven Christian positions come from. This gives us faith healers, extremes of Pentecostalism, and creationism (not merely that evolution is false, but also that the evidence overwhelmingly supports creation.) Except for maybe faith healers who think they can raise people from the dead, all of these, even if true, seem quite pathetic compared to the options available to an omnipotent deity.

“God's ways are not our ways.”

Translation: “Yes, I admit it makes absolutely no sense.” That's exactly what I'm saying. God's plans contradict human concepts of reason, which are in fact, the only concepts of reason that humans have. “Human reasoning” is not a term that describes a particular kind of thinking, it is a term that describes whether or not you are thinking. To realize something doesn't make sense and to continue to believe it is like looking at one's face in a mirror, observing it is unwashed, and then doing nothing about it. And yet Christians continue to disparage reason and then whine whenever insultingly described as opposing reason.

“It's so we can have faith.”

There are quite a few problems with this. First off, there are options other than all aspects of Christianity being proven and the dismal evidence apologists think we have. God could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's powerful and intervenes in the world while making us believe purely by faith that he's good. God could prove that he's powerful while providing only a little bit of evidence that he's good. He could prove that he's powerful and good while making us believe by faith that salvation actually works. So even if God wants us to have faith, that is no excuse for his absence.

The next problem is that it supposes that something is good about having faith. Without this assumption, to say God is hidden so we can have faith is not an explanation, but merely a description of the particular sort of irrationality behind the plan. There is no basis for claiming that belief in God must necessarily involve faith – it's only necessary because God set it up this way, and he didn't have to set it up this way. While faith can have other meanings, in this context, faith is nothing more than an excuse for being illogical and an emotional shield that makes pointing out the obviousness of this cruel and offensive. But for some reason, God likes it when we don't try to be rational. One of the few systems that I can imagine where justice would be more arbitrary than this would be if God just chose some people and didn't choose others.

In fact, I have proof that the God of the Bible didn't have to set up the system to require faith because he doesn't always set it up that way. In the garden of Eden, Adam was provided with absolute proof that God exists, is powerful, and cares. And this didn't seem to interfere with his ability to have free will or a relationship with God. Furthermore, in heaven, the perfect existence will again not require people to have faith.

The final and most severe problem with this explanation is that even Christians don't believe it. If they did, Christians would doubt the crossing of the Red Sea because that would be too clear of evidence for God's existence and would take away the Israelites' ability to have faith. Christians would doubt that Jesus walked on water because that would take away the disciples' ability to have faith. Christians would conclude that a personal relationship with God couldn't be a valid reason for belief, because that would destroy the ability to have faith. But that's not how Christians think about miracles or proofs of his existence. When God gives proof, well did you see that? That was proof. When God doesn't give proof, it's because it would be against his nature to give us proof.

I only take the “it's so we can have faith” line seriously when it's coming from someone who consistently applies this reasoning. For the other 100%, it's a excuse that allows people to just make stuff up and pretend it's a worldview worthy of respect.

Imagine what it would be like if atheists thought this way. We'd have motivational speakers telling us things like:

“I know sometimes you might see crazy things like someone healed right in front of you, but just try not to see God in it. Sometimes, you might find yourself in a place where it’s just obvious God has done something. It just doesn’t make sense any other way. But don’t believe it! It doesn’t have to make sense. If you need one, find a support group to help you not believe even after you’ve seen a miracle. You aren’t the only one this has happened to! Lots of atheists in the past have seen miracles and still found a way to have faith in God's non-existence! You can do it too!”

Of course, if atheists talked like this, theists would be all over us saying that our words show that we don’t really disbelieve. Yes, I did just make a not-very-subtle remark about whether or not theists are atheists in rebellion against a reality that they don't like. (My apologies for sinking to the level of functional theism.)

“It wouldn't work anyway.”

Gideon disagreed. He didn't believe, so God allowed him to perform a fleece experiment to test his power. Gideon was so impressed by the efficacy of evidence in convincing people that you could have confused him with an atheist. [Or, to be fair, with a Christian evidentialist.]

Thomas disagreed. He didn't believe before Jesus showed him his wounds, and he believed afterward.

Even Jesus disagreed. “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” – Matthew 11:23

The question Jesus didn't answer is why he didn't perform those miracles in Sodom, because he sure seems to think it would have worked. I'd bet millions and billions of people are alive today who are even more open to the evidence of miracles than the Bible's epitome of evil. And yet God doesn't show them miracles. By contrast, I actually want people to stop damaging their lives with faith, and so I try to provide actual arguments against it. I show you my beliefs by my works. God claims that he wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. I wish God would have shown us that he really wanted Sodom to be saved by his actions. The Sodomites aren't in hell because they refused to be with God and so God told them “thy will be done” and sent them off to the one place apart from himself. Sodom could have been saved. Unfortunately for them, God was in one of his smiting moods.

And again, Christians are unwilling to consistently think according to this rationalization. If they have a dramatic answer to prayer or observe a miracle, you'd better believe that they are going to tell people. It could be the case that they still don't believe this will have an effect on people who don't believe. But that's not the point. The point is that they realize it makes sense to try. But God doesn't try. He has instead fine-tuned war, scientific laws, birth defects, tragedies, and the Bible to make it look like he doesn't do anything at all.

The Kicker

All of these rebuttals completely and utterly fail to provide a coherent explanation for why God hides himself. There is no excuse for God not making himself known. But it's even worse than that. Suppose for the sake of argument that Christianity provides a completely plausible explanation for God's behavior, one is completely content with the possibility that we cannot have any idea why God doesn't do what he doesn't do, or I'm wrong on every single point when I talk about things God “should” want to do. Then the argument from hiddenness is still a powerful argument. If any or all of these are the case, this would merely explains how hiddenness was one of God's options.

Atheism forces people to make very specific predictions about how things will work, namely that no actions will be performed by God that are distinguishable from no action at all. But Christianity cannot predict in advance that God will fine-tune the outcome to look like he did nothing at all.

Suppose one person predicts that the sun will rise at 5:54 am tomorrow morning, while the second person says it could rise at any time between 4 am and 10 am and there is no way of knowing precisely what the sun will do in advance. And then the sun rises at 5:54 am. Technically, the second person hasn't been shown to be wrong. But this is powerful evidence that the first person knows something that the second person doesn't know.

Every single time that God could preform a miracle, could reveal himself, or could reveal useful knowledge to us but doesn't is a case where theists merely observe this to be one of many possible outcomes. But atheists knew the sun would rise at 5:54 am. How do atheists get these things right so often and so precisely? Personally, I do not find this question to be particularly difficult to answer.